- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2015

As India launches its first observatory in space and Europe places a probe on a comet, SpaceX is hoping to help the U.S. lead the space race with reusable rockets and the kind of raw power not seen since the glory days of the Saturn V.

Earlier this year California-based enterprise SpaceX launched the Dragon, a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket carrying unmanned cargo to the International Space Station. The company has hoped to land the rocket on a floating barge in the ocean but has yet to succeed.

Aerospace sources told The Washington Times that SpaceX is aiming to launch again in November, but a representative for the company declined to comment.

On the company’s website, SpaceX founder Elon Musk explained that if the U.S. could “reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. This is really a fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”

The primary difference between the reusable Falcon 9 and NASA’s now-defunct Space Shuttle is cost.

When the Space Shuttle began development in 1972, it was estimated that each flight would cost $22 million. By the end of 2010 NASA estimated per-flight costs of $1.6 billion. By contrast, the projected cost per mission of the Falcon 9 starts at $61.2 million.

Since President Obama shut down the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has relied on Moscow to send U.S. astronauts aboard Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station — at $70 million a ride. NASA’s contract with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency is set to expire at the end of 2018, and both countries have agreed to extend operation of the space station until 2024.

Officials at the Russian Embassy said that Moscow’s launch activity last year was the highest it has been in a decade, boasting 37 successful missions, compared to 22 flown by the U.S. and 16 by China.

“Russia launched almost as many successful missions last year as the two other space leaders — the United States and China — have taken combined,” embassy spokesman Yury Melnik told The Times.

Last September NASA awarded $6.8 billion in contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop a commercial crew transportation system that would succeed the Space Shuttle. NASA hopes to build a new spacecraft that can transport astronauts to the space station as early as 2017, which would help end U.S. dependence on Roscosmos.

SpaceX is aiming to help America recapture the kind of power not seen since Wernher von Braun helped NASA develop the Saturn V, which remains the tallest, heaviest, most powerful rocket in history.

The company plans to launch the “Falcon 9 Heavy” next year, which adds two strap-on boosters to the Falcon 9 rocket, giving it more escape velocity than any rocket in the world since the Saturn V was decommissioned in 1973 after the Apollo moon program ended. The cost of a Falcon Heavy launch would be about $90 million — still considerably less than the Space Shuttle.

There’s already at least one customer: Seattle-based Spaceflight will supply the entire payload of 20 customer satellites for a SpaceX Falcon 8 rocket launch sometime in 2017.

Other countries, such as India, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, have tried developing reusable rockets, but none has launched test flights to date.

Meanwhile, congressional leaders are pressing for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) — a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing — to develop a replacement engine for the RD-180, a pressure-staged, combustion-cycle rocket engine developed in the 1970s by the now-defunct Soviet Experimental Design Bureau.

The Air Force has launched national security satellites with the RD-180 since 2006 because of its nearly perfect success rate, but it was recently banned in the 2016 version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“We agree now is the right time to transition from the RD-180 engine,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said. “That is why United Launch Alliance is hard at work pursuing two options for a domestic engine and is fully committed to delivering an American launch vehicle as quickly as possible.”

• Jeffrey Scott Shapiro can be reached at jshapiro@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide